I grew up in upstate New York, where winters are no joke. It was not uncommon to have wind chills reach 10 or 20 degrees below zero on some mornings when waiting for the school bus.
Back in NY over the holidays and faced with frigid temperatures (compared to Mid-Atlantic Winters), I was reminded of the white patches of skin that used to develop under your eyes if you were out in the cold for too long, or the numbness in your fingers or toes. It was only a week back up north, and I was freezing!
And it made me wonder: How did I avoid frostbite for all of these years?
Or did I?
According to the ADAM Health Encyclopedia, frostbite is "the temporary (superficial) or permanent (deep) skin tissue damage caused by prolonged skin-tissue temperature of 23 degrees F and below." It involves the skin freezing and the underlying tissue being damaged due to extreme cold. Symptoms occur when blood flow stops to the skin, and it could result in tissue damage or infection if the skin is not warmed back up quickly.
Frostbite is not common, but can become a big problem. ADAM identifies "frostnip" as a more common problem, which involves a superficial freezing of the outer layer of the skin when exposed. It turns white as circulation decreases, stings or can become quite painful.
So how do you differentiate between frostnip and the more severe frostbite? Both are characterized by discoloration of the skin and loss of sensitivity, and could involve some painful/burning sensations. However, once the pain becomes extreme or goes completely numb, you may be crossing into frostbite territory. As the skin changes from pale to white-purple, you may be in the danger zone for frostbite. The skin can also appear "wooden" in texture. Frostbite is most common in exposed areas – including the ears and tip of the nose – or extremities, such as the fingers and toes.
Skin could also turn a grayish-yellow color and become unusually firm or waxy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also notes that, as wind increases, it can carry heat away from the body more quickly, which could lead to frostbite.
What to Do
If you start to experience these symptoms, act fast before the skin cannot recover. The CDC says that people should get into a warm room as soon as possible and to avoid walking on frostbitten toes or feet, as this could increase the damage. The affected area should be immersed in warm – but not hot – water or warmed by using body heat, such as by placing your frostbitten hands in your armpits. Someone concerned about frostbite should not rub the area, as this too could cause more damage. People should also avoid heating pads, heat lamps or heat from a stove, as the affected areas could burn easily without the person being able to fully feel it.
Sufferers from frostbite may be wise to take a painkiller while attempting to warm the affected areas, as the warming process can be painful.
Of course, if there are extreme cases or a fear for hypothermia, seek medical attention.
Before entering extreme cold, dress in layers and leave as little skin exposed to the elements as possible. Heavy mittens are preferable over gloves, as the fingers can help warm each other. Avoid alcohol – it interferes with the body's ability to regulate temperature – and tobacco, which decreases circulation and restricts blood vessels.
Don't ignore shivering, either! The CDC indicates that this is an important sign that the body is cold and that you should go inside to warm up. Though this is not directly related to frostbite, it could be a sign that you may be in frostbite-causing conditions.
Frostbite occurs when the skin temperature reaches 23 degrees Fahrenheit or below, so be careful this winter and take care of your body!
A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia. (n.d.). "Frostbite." HealthCentral.com. Retrieved from http://www.healthcentral.com/encyclopedia/408/453.html.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (December 3, 2012). "Winter Weather Frequently Asked Questions." CDC.gov. Retrieved from http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/winter/faq.asp.